The phone rang as David and Amy Smith were getting ready for dinner one January 1993 evening. An unfamiliar voice was on the other end: "Is this David Smith of Retrosheet?"
Smith replied in the affirmative.
"This is Dave Tuttle of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and I was hoping you could help us with something for our media guide."
Smith's baseball playing days had ended a quarter of a century earlier in college. He had gone on to become an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Delaware. For him, this call was the fulfillment of a dream. This was his major league call-up.
Tuttle's request was simple, and Smith answered it that night. When he hung up the phone, he sat down, turned to Amy and declared: "I can die now."
"He was just so wowed," Amy recalls. "Now, the teams call him all the time. That's becoming kind of a regular occurrence."
As founder of Retrosheet, Smith has spearheaded a 13-year effort to capture play-by-play accounts of major league baseball games dating back to 1871. It has been a painstaking road that has tested Smith's perseverance.
His reward for passing the test? The joy of sharing the rich data that have emerged from the computerization and categorization of 65,000 (and counting) games.
Smith says he still pinches himself over his status as an "authority."
"I'm just a fan. I still can't completely get over that," said Smith. "It still gives me a kick. It's literally what I dreamed of."
It's a side of Smith few see at the University, where he has been a member of the biology faculty for 27 years and received the University's Excellence-in-Teaching Award.
"He's a very dynamic lecturer. He presents the material in a very exciting and dynamic way," says colleague Steven Skopic. He is struck by Smith's organizational skills. "That's what makes him such a great teacher," Skopic says. "He knows what he's doing."
As passionate as Smith is about Retrosheet, he does not bring it into the workplace. Of the 8,000 students Smith has taught, he said fewer than 10 are aware of the baseball project.
What does Smith say to those who consider his work a frivolous pursuit? That's where his sense of history kicks in (in addition to earning a biology degree and playing catcher at the University of California, San Diego, he was a history minor).
"If this really is the national game, isn't it self-evident that we should have a historical record of it?" said Smith. "What we are doing is so obviously important that it has to be done."
Smith says he is astonished that individual teams and the major leagues as a whole have been blasé about tracking the records. "They shouldn't need a bunch of volunteer geeks to do this," he said.
Retrosheet is born
Retrosheet's birth can be traced to July 18, 1958, when, as a 10-year-old, Smith attended his first major league baseball game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. His beloved Dodgers beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-6, despite a shaky outing by starter Sandy Koufax. Then a raw 22-year-old with more potential than productivity, Koufax struck out two and walked four batters in the first inning before he was taken out.
The boy was fascinated also by a feature story in the Dodger yearbook. The subject was Alan Roth, a Dodger statistician who charted more than 2,600 games, pitch by pitch, between 1947 and 1964. Roth was blazing the way for the likes of Smith.
Fast forward three decades. Retrosheet came on the heels of Smith's two years as a volunteer tracking games as part of a 1980s effort called Project Scoresheet. The idea behind that work was to track play-by-play information as the games were played. But, Smith said the volunteers' work was parlayed into a for-profit venture by the organizer, eminent baseball statistician and historian Bill James.
Dismayed by that sequence, Smith resolved that there would be one non-negotiable point when he conceived Retrosheet in 1989: All of the information would be shared free of charge.
The group's mission is to track down, input and then share details from games dating back to 1871. By the 1980s, companies had emerged to track current games, so Smith saw a more pressing need to retrieve data from games played during a less statistically aware era.
About a dozen other baseball denizens joined forces with Smith, who leads by example: He invests about 25 hours a week gathering, sorting and overseeing the inputting of play-by-play data from thousands of major league baseball games. Technology has enabled Retrosheet
to organize and categorize the data. "The PC doesn't just make this easy," Smith says. "It makes it possible. Without it, the data would remain invisible."
Retrosheet has compiled a comprehensive statistical breakdown of individual players' performances. The depth and breadth of the information puts the organization in a league all its own. And enhancements to the organization's web site last year [www.retrosheet.org] have exponentially increased access to and the popularity of the records.
Calls stream in
In 1995, the Society of American Baseball Research created a special award to recognize Smith for his contribution to the game's history. And, since that first phone call from the Dodgers, a steady stream of requests has followed. The Hall of Fame calls on a regular basis. The Seattle Mariners last year inquired where its amazing 2001 start ranked among teams all-time. The Minnesota Twins sought a detailed summary of outfielder Kirby Puckett's statistics when he retired in the mid-1990s. On and on it goes.
Retrosheet has carved a niche in answering needle-in-a-haystack questions that people previously never dared ask.
Tim Hevly, the Seattle Mariners public relations director, said Retrosheet is a key resource for data on players who join the team after spending seasons with other clubs. One recent case in point was Rickey Henderson, who was approaching the all-time record for walks when he arrived in Seattle two years ago.
"It's nice to have someone to turn to for somebody like Rickey...and this (historical record) drops in our lap in the middle of the season," Hevly says.
Other times, Hevly has called Smith during a game to request information he needs for the media by the end of the contest. "I always end up calling him for a favor," Hevly says, "and he always acts like he's asking the favor."
Luke Kraemer, a Retrosheet board member, credits the organization's success to Smith's enthusiasm. "It just rubs off and it puts people at ease," he says. "People are willing to do stuff when they know it's for a legitimate purpose here. No one's out to make a buck."
Filling in the blanks
"He will never admit to this, but Dave is Retrosheet," says David Vincent, a baseball historian who serves as Retrosheet's secretary. "He's adamant about the fact that we're doing this to preserve history. We're not doing it for any other reason."
In Retrosheet's economy, this is the chain of distribution: Smith or another volunteer contacts an individual, an organization or a team and arranges to receive scorebooks or copies of score sheets. All of the copied material goes to "The Vault," 11 file cabinets in Smith's basement.
Arranged by shape and size, score sheets bulge in anticipation of Smith finding a volunteer with time to enter the information into his own personal computer. Often it winds up in the hands of Clem Comly, who has entered data from more games than anyone else: 12,000. Because a typical game takes 15 minutes to input, Comly has expended the equivalent of more than four months of nonstop effort. Notes Comly: "It helps to be single."
Smith returns original scorebooks to senders almost immediately. After inputting the data, Retrosheet volunteers return the score sheets to Smith, who files them back in The Vault for safekeeping.
"He'd be perfectly happy to stay down in the basement for days on end, weeks on end and come up for food occasionally," says Amy, a part-time geography professor at the University. "You almost have to schedule him a little bit."
Retrosheet has completely compiled 17 seasons. For another 10 seasons, it is tantalizingly close to a complete picture. Those can be some of the most frustrating ones, said Smith--seasons in which four or six game accounts are keeping Retrosheet from completion.
Checking auction sites for score sheets is where volunteers like Kraemer and Jim Wohlenhaus come into play. A semi-retired accountant, Wohlenhaus camps out daily on ebay.com, scanning for score sheets. In the past three years, he has plucked more than 400 games this way. He shares the Retrosheet story with sellers and gets photocopies of the score sheets before they move from seller to buyer.
Geoff Silver, assistant director of baseball administration for the Cincinnati Reds, last year loaned Smith 15 years' worth of official scorebooks dating back to the 1950s. Soon after, the Reds asked Smith for data on batting order trends that proved "tremendously helpful," says Silver.
One team held out for eight years. An official from that team brushed Smith off in spectacular fashion, scoffing, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"I figure, 'I'm doomed,'" Smith recalls. "Two years later, I see he has left the team. I wait 10 minutes and call his successor. Within three months, I had all the information I needed."
A few years later, the gentleman who insulted Smith came calling in search of the very same information that he had withheld for so long. What would Smith do with this sweet reversal of fortune?
"You'll have it tomorrow," he replied, suppressing any temptation to gloat.
"If I can't send it to him," Smith explains, "then I can't send it to anybody."